South Florida

Wheelchair athletes take on grueling Miami Triathlon — with the help of a Power Buddy

For a guy who had just swum a quarter of a mile, biked 13 more, and then run another 3 after that, Reinaldo Maiz was pretty blasé.

“Not tired at all,” he reported. “I just sat back and enjoyed myself. I got to take a lot of pictures and enjoy the reaction of other people to Jim doing all the work.”

“Jim” would be Jim Sayih, a retired 56-year-old Miami cop who was towing the paralyzed Maiz most of the way, sometimes with a bicycle and sometimes with nothing but his strong back. And yes, Sayih was a little pooped. “I’ve felt better than I do at the moment,” he conceded. “But boy, would I have felt worse if we got the storm everybody was expecting. Pulling somebody three miles in the rain is no fun.”

Contestants in the run-swim-bike Miami Triathlon don’t usually snap photos or chatter pleasantries with passers-by, because they’re too busy huffing and puffing and cramping. But Sunday’s version of the triathlon had some new participants: 38 wheelchair riders who rode around the course with the help of other athletes.

The riders made their way from a tiny island in Biscayne Bay to shore in downtown’s Margaret Pace Park in small rubber rafts towed by their partners (or, in Triathlon slang, Power Buddies). Then their elongated wheelchairs — or Chariots, as everybody calls them, the capital C plainly audible in their speech — are pulled by bike-mounted Power Buddies along a route that passes over eight bridges and the Julia Tuttle Causeway. And they wrap it up with a waterside run in which the Power Buddies push the Chariots.

Members of Team Special Compass head out for the cycling stage of the Mack Cycle Escape to Miami Triathlon on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018, where the start and finish are in Margaret Pace Park in Miami, Florida. Carl Juste

The full course is 32 miles. Some of the contestants (including Mariz and Sayih) took a shortened version that’s about 16.3. Not that it seemed very short; the fastest of the riders/Power Buddies took about an hour and a half to finish it.

“I’ve done a lot of races, but this one is quite a bit different,” said Diego Ruiz, one of the winning Power Buddies, who handled the biking and swimming part of the race for his ride, Ruth Brown. “My ride was a pretty light woman, but still, when you add her together with the Chariot, you’ve towing 200 pounds behind you.”

His Power Buddy partner, Andrea Barcari, added that the bulky chariots are difficult to maneuver even when just pushing them. “The challenging part is when you have to turn,” she said. “It doesn’t happen on a dime. And the bridges!” She shuddered.

Everybody agreed that the bridges where challenging, which is Power Buddy jargon for “nightmarish obstacle designed by Satan himself.” Going up is a strength-sapping slog; going down, much easier, if you don’t count the soul-chilling fear of losing control of the Chariot at the top of the Tuttle Causeway and watching it ricochet down for who knows how many miles of 36th Street, knocking pedestrians around like pinballs.

However much you loathe the Tuttle in terms of traffic, your hatred is a pathetic baby tantrum to the Power Buddies, who were dealing with 35-mph winds at its pinnacle Sunday, in addition to everything else.

“My strategy going up was: Turn! Turn! Turn!,” explained Power Buddy Amy Colombo of Deerfield Beach. Your strategy for winning? wondered a reporter. “Winning?” Colombo cackled. “It was my strategy for not falling over flat on my back on my bike.“

With the sketchy hills, the journey through water where a capsized raft could spell serious and possibly lethal trouble and the ever-present danger, any time you’re outside in Florida, of being hit by a bale of marijuana falling from the sky, you might think there’s a certain amount of angst for the Triathlete riders.

Brown, who rode with Barcari and Ruiz, is a 65-year-old multiple sclerosis patient who rarely speaks anymore. “So I couldn’t ask her if she was having a good time,” Ruiz told a reporter. “But I can tell you this, she was smiling and waving at everybody. I think she must have been enjoying herself.” The reporter looked over at Ruiz. She smiled and waved.

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